The Baltic Germans in Russian empire

(Source: Ingeborg Fleischhauer and Benjamin Pinkus: The Soviet Germans – Past and Present edited with an introduction by Edith Rogovin Frankel, St. Martin’s Press, New York in association with the Marjorie Mayrock Center for Soviet and East European Research ant the Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1986)

The Baltic German communities originated in the medieval colonization led by the knights of the Livionian and Teutonic order and by the burghers of Riga, Dorpat and Reval, and their region became part of the Russian empire with the expansion under Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. They followed their own historical and sociological path within the empire and, followed the Revolution of 1917, found themselves divided by the new state frontiers.

In historical perspective of the all Germans in Russian empire, only the Baltic Germans (ostzeiskie nemtsy) were among the people subjugated under the Russian throne. Yet the Baltic Germans of Livonia and Estonia had themselves concluded a Treaty of Submission with their conqueror, Peter the Great, which in the long run proved advantageous to them. The Peace in Nystadt (1721) had confirmed the privileges accorded to the Baltic Provinces under Polish rule (the Privilegium Sigismundi Augusti, 1561); freedom of religious practice and of the Protestant faith, later buttressed by the founding of German Protestant University – University of Dorpat, German administration in town and country, and observance of German law, Courland, the third of the Baltic provinces, fell to Russia on the third portion of Poland in 1795. After 400 years of wars and struggling to survive, the Baltic provinces, which were joined into a general Baltic governorate (gubernia). The general Baltic governorate was not ruled by Russia but was administered independently by the local Baltic German nobility through a feudal Regional Council, German: Landtag.

In 1801, entered a period of steady progress, while preserving their far-reaching privileges (pp. 13-14)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, some 100 000 Germans were living in the Baltic general gubernia, amounting to 7,52 per cent of the overall Baltic population. The land-owing nobility constituted about 10 per cent of the Baltic German population. They were disproportionately strongly represented in the Russian state administration and at the court.

The Baltic German urban population comprised a bourgeoisie of Hansetic origin, active and fairly successful in trade and industry, a significant stratum of literati influenced culturally and politically by their former German fatherland, and a stratum of petty-bourgeois and artisan, which was broadened very considerably by a strong influx from the German lands, especially towards the end of the nineteenth-century.

The social and economic dominance of the Baltic German landowners continued unchanged. In the 1800 Baltic German landed estates in Estonia comprised 1,145,128 hectares, or 59,8 per cent of the entire cultivable agricultural area of the gubernia, as against local peasant ownership amounting to 40,2 per cent. In Livonia in 1908, the Baltic German latifunda covered 60 per cent, and the local peasant land 39 per cent of the usable area. These ratios remained constant up to the First World War. (p. 16). In 1914 - 4 million hectares of land in Baltic provinces was German-owned. (p. 22)

With the fall of the Kaiser’s Reich and the failure and defeat of the White armies and regional governments, the Russian German population was faced with the threat of annihilation of its centuries-old, guaranteed, privileged status. Flight, emigration and opting for other states were the responses of the mobile sections of the Germans to the threat to their existence. Those who remained – among them the overwhelming majority - were peasants (p. 30). They were descents from those Germans, who more than two centuries ago responded to the Empress Catherine the Greate’s issued Manifesto - inviting foreigners to come and settle in Russia.